In this, my second post on the Chalke Valley History Festival, I am going to write about living history and the small aspects of costume history that snuck into the 2015 programme. Living history (re-enactment to some) is a big part of CVHF and adds a huge amount to the atmosphere and enjoyment of visitors. As a dress historian, I would (obviously) love to see more dress history at CVHF, but even though there has yet to be a dress historian on the programme, dress plays a role at the festival and was particularly prominent in this years 1940s dress-up day.
Dress of course is crucial to living historians or historical re-enactors, and I am always incredibly impressed by the costumes worn around the site, representing every historical era from the Anglo-Saxons to the Second World War via the French Revolution and the ‘Dirty Victorians’. CVHF is the only festival to combine academic talks and living history and this blend gets a mixed response from festival visitors; I know some find the noise of living history extremely distracting when talks are under way. As my festival talk this year was up against a WW2 weapons display, I can say from experience that it is extremely difficult to concentrate and compete with the sound of rifle fire and exploding grenades. There are also some who feel uncomfortable with the theatre/performance element of living history; being approached by someone staying resolutely in character can make us uncomfortable and unsure of how to interact. These issues aside, I am fascinated by the world of living history and find it incredibly exciting to be transported back in time (at least temporarily!) by people who are almost without fail amazingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their period of history.
My favourite living historians at CVHF this year included the Magna Carta artists, Henry VIII his daughter Elizabeth and a rotation of wives (depending on how he was feeling that day), the Roman encampment, and the blacksmith creating historic tools in the woods. I loved meeting Flora Sandes wondering around the stall holders area dressed in her Serbian army uniform, and watching various periods of history dance together at the 1940s Victory Party on Saturday night. I was beside myself with excitement to be taken for a spin around the site in Aggy, a WW1 Ford Model-T ambulance made from original parts, with Emma, a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. But did any of this teach me something I didn’t know about history? I think it did. And I’m sure it does for lots of visitors who take the time to engage with the living historians. If you open your mind, this is an exciting and involving way to learn about history – maybe not enough to write an essay, but enough to make you want to find out more. Part of my research is to look at WW1 uniforms and how they have influenced fashion, and for the week I had not only WW1 uniforms to hand but also a full history of military uniforms back to the Romans. I wouldn’t use this ‘research’ in my PhD thesis, but living historians have pointed me in the direction of useful source material, or told me the correct terms to enter into a search engine. (I was even corrected on some of my military uniform terms by an ex-Coldstream Guard.)
To all of those who think that living history isn’t ‘real’ history I would argue that many living historians have a lot to offer that may or may not feature in the history books, and that they offer an entirely different method of interpretation. I would however like to see more interpretations of non-military history and specifically more women’s history, as a reminder that history isn’t only one battle followed by the next. There is certainly a dominance of ‘boys and their toys’ which perhaps gives an unfair bias both on history, and what living historians are capable of.
As mentioned, the costumes worn by living historians are wonderful and a fantastic way to draw people both into history, and more specifically into dress history. At the festival this year it was not only actors who got dressed up; on Saturday for the first time there was a dress-up day, where all guests were invited to dress in 1940s fashion. This was of course great fun for me and I bought a wonderful 1940s original from Ebay which will not be saved only for fancy dress! Remembering 70 years since the end of the Second World War the whole weekend took a 1940s theme, with relevant talks and a 1945 Victory Party to finish things off. It was a pleasure to hear Julie Summers talk about 1940s fashion and the Women’s Institute through the war, and it was incredible to see so many WW2 veterans speaking over the weekend and then joining the party with gusto.
Costume offers such a simple way for people to engage with history, and it was great listening to people getting excited about dressing up over the course of the week. The majority of the CVHF team made a fabulous effort, letting my friend Emily and I put their hair into Victory Rolls or turbans, and attempting some swing dancing to the sounds of the Bomshelle Belles. Given the enthusiasm for both living history and dressing up, I find it surprising that there has yet to be a dedicated dress history talk at the festival – aside from a fantastic interactive talk given by Ros Liddington a few years ago. The festival is extremely popular and is fairly wide reaching in its interpretation of history, there have been – for example – numerous talks on the history of food and even cooking utensils. I hope that in the next couple of years room will be made for some talks on the history of dress and textiles, or other object related research, demonstrating the strength of objects as powerful tools for storytelling.
I love that history at CVHF is interpreted in countless different ways and that the subject is truly brought to life. Much as I love reading books or listening to a speaker I admire, there is nothing quite like hearing the roar of a Spitfire engine as it swoops over the beautiful valley around you. Whether through engines, frocks or swords, bringing history to life excites and engages people and that can only be a good thing.